Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
In today’s hyper-sensitive American culture, certain phrases have become commonplace and tools of the trade for progressives pushing for a return to the path of a more multi-culturally and diverse sensitive America. Among those words is actually a term that harkens back decades ago to the 1930’s and that phrase is known as ‘gaslighting’.
Who Wields the Sword
Gaslighting is often used to refer to a type of verbal and psychological manipulation of someone’s mind regarding their choices and beliefs. Conservatives and progressives throw the term around more often depending on their contexts. Specifically, many conservatives use the term in the political field to accuse progressive and scientific views that challenge their own lifestyle choices. These may include everything from believing liberals blow out of proportions issues of racism and economic disparity, to counter-arguing that pandemics like COVID-19 are yet another lie by the government to take away their liberties.
Progressives use gaslighting in the context of sexism and relationship abuse. This has become more prominent since 2017 in light of the #MeToo movement that has been exposing numerous abuses and injustices against women in the career and personal arenas. Most often, gaslighting is applied when men try to ‘man-splain’ or convince women that the issues they believe are facing from a patriarchal society is not as bad as it seems, figments of their imaginations, or something they somehow ‘always wanted anyway’.
Here is where it dovetails into the historical context. Supposedly the term originated from a movie of the same name done back in 1944. The story involves a woman who slowly goes mad because of her husband’s frequent nightly disappearances, events that she is repeatedly told are parts of her imagination. And the wife is told this so frequently that she begins to believe her own madness. She marks her husband’s leaving by the lowering of the gas-lights around her home. If it is true that gaslighting owes its existence to the movies, then it would have more of an association with feminism and progressivism because it involves the manipulation of woman's’ minds.
Pointing Back at You
I’ve seen many people often dismiss what someone is saying to them once they start throwing around terms like gaslighting and dog-whistling. While it is used to describe an action, in today’s society they have become so heavily associated with a particular affiliation, that it gives the other person reason to outright ignore anything else they say. Chocking it up to another ‘crazy’ liberal and conservative, depending on who is doing the ignoring. Whatever else they say is untrue, propaganda, or not as bad as the speaker makes it out to be.
However, the fact is that the action that gaslighting represents does exist. Men have tried to convince women that what they are telling them is really how they feel. I know this because I’ve done it. For my part, it wasn’t intentional and the last thing I wanted to do was to control anybody. However, when my girlfriend blindsided me with wanting to break up after a long night of classes, I panicked. Since then I have never done it again, ashamed by that reaction, yet at the same time it confirmed that the behavior does exist in men.
Likewise politically, gaslighting really does occur here as well. Anytime someone tries to throw ‘facts’ into their ideological opponents' faces to contradict their claims, it is by definition trying to make them doubt their personal choice. As there are many people who are anti-vaccers and have an intense distrust of anything the government has to say (unless it's one they voted for), there is some ground for legitimacy in their minds that they are being gaslit by liberals or the radical-left.
No One Shot, One Kill
The bone I have to pick with gaslighting is over it’s existence or non-existence. I did after all just say that it does. Rather, the issue is with the automatic and default assumption that using the word somehow equates that the person using it is on the right side of history. It is a symptom of our culture’s sensitivity that catch phrases have become weaponized. To use them against someone as an accusation or reason not to listen to or believe them is just as charged as throwing a physical rock at them.
Words are like weapons or utensils in that they are all tools. They have no inborn morality that keeps them on the side of truth and justice-which ever side that might be. This is why both ideologies can use the term with seeming impunity and without consequence. A flat-earther is not going to be struck down for calling out a scientist as gaslighting them, just as a MeToo protestor isn’t going to die on the spot for accusing a conservative male of gaslighting them on their own trauma.
Yet oftentimes when I see either side use the term in their arguments, it's amazing to me watching how puffed up they get physically, verbally, and in their mannerisms. Like they just delivered a ‘drop the mic’ moment or caught their opponent in a verbal, invisible net.
A person’s experiences are real and should always be taken seriously. But applying gaslighting or any other modern catch phrase to the argument does not automatically grant power over that party. Because they could just as easily then apply it back, trying to accuse the original speaker that they in fact are guilty of causing doubt, and not the other way around. Both sides can believe they hold the moral high ground all they want, but it wont grant them victory.
In this, gaslighting becomes like a literal, double-edge sword: it's a weapon that holds no allegiance other than the hand wielding it.
From Sword to Shield
What’s more, gaslighting can be used to prevent someone from being challenged when they actually need to be in their position. A nineteen year-old who believes that they’ll never get COVID can just say to someone telling them to put a mask on to stop gaslighting them. If that person says they’ll get others sick, the kid will just lean harder behind his shield.
Likewise, a Black Lives Matter protester who is arguing with someone criticizing the movement by accusing it of a lack of tangible goals, can say they are being gaslit. Therefore they don’t have to listen to them nor consider the possible weakness the other person is trying to point out. In essence, gaslighting goes from a phrase meaning to call out manipulators, to something manipulated that the hearer uses to not have to consider another point of view.
So who in fact is doing the gaslighting?
"They don't lie to you because the truth will hurt your feelings. They lie to you because the truth might provoke you to make the choices that won't serve their own interests."
— - Author unknown
Free Your Mind?
There’s one more bone that I have with gaslighting and I believe it's more insidious than what I said so far. This probably applies more to the progressive context, but whenever gaslighting is applied, there is an assumption that the person being gas-lit is the victim in need of saving. A Lois Lane in need of her Superman. A Neo freeing humanity from the machines. The assumption then goes further by believing on some level that once the person ‘sees their truth’, that they will be more independent and stronger for it. However, this ignores the simple but important idea that the person may not want to be set free.
In my experience, the biggest obstacle people have had in trying to change the other’s mind or step beyond their own comfort zones has been the ignorance of what that mindset/comfort zone provides the person. In the book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Theologian Howard Thurman said that people who are often oppressed create their own secret narratives against their oppressors when they lack the physical power to do so. Jews will believe they are the chosen ones of God, despite the fact that they can't do shit to a Roman legionaries marching down their street in Jerusalem.
We often assume that the ‘truth will set us free’, whatever context that may apply to, while ignoring the real consequences that person may have to endure for embracing that truth. And why not after all? It’s not our mind that needs to set free, right?
People will attack Walmart for employing and underpaying girls in Third world countries, not knowing that without that low-paying job, the girls’ only alternative is prostitution. Not sex-work as Westerners like to define it, but old school, abusive, manipulative sex-slavery.
Someone who has built their entire worldview on a specific idea and then finds out its false, oftentimes experience an internal apocalypse. The mental devastation can be total as the meaning they derived from that ideology is now non-existent or worse, corrupted. This actually happened in 1945 during World War Two as the allies were finishing their conquest of Nazi Germany. Their are accounts that many citizens who Hitler had sold on the inherent greatness and infallibility of Germany, couldn’t handle the reality literally barreling down on them and committed suicide. Thousands of people did this and it even occurred earlier during the war when France was conquered in 1940.
Be Careful of the Fire You Light
Truth is truth, no matter how hard or simple it is. Yet the structures we make around those truths vary between being very strong and extremely brittle. Therefore, to assume that the person accusing you of gaslighting them is going to be just fine is not always true. If you are going to challenge someone’s position and try to get them to flip sides, it is a necessity to consider how the lie benefits them in the first place, what the truth will do to them, and if they can endure the change.
Because if they can’t they may go to extreme lengths to maintain the lie, even if it's not the truth. And the fire you have created with your gaslighting may turn out to be not one that you want.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2021 Jamal Smith